MANILA - The signing of an enhanced defense cooperation deal between the Philippines and United States is certain to be hailed by various groups, amid mounting concerns about China's actions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), but some observers have a far less rosy view of its implications.
University of the Philippines Development Studies and Public Management Professor Roland Simbulan warned that the defense deal could simply be a way for Washington to legalize activities and operations that he says violate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.
''The VFA is supposed to be strictly for transient training of US forces, but they have been violating this. They have built permanent structures, stationed 600 special operations forces especially in Mindanao -- these are violations of the VFA. So they want now an agreement that will legalize these violations,'' Simbuland told ANC.
Simbulan cited the US military installation in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City as one of the supposed VFA violations. The professor said US forces have been in the camp since 2003.
''I've seen them personally. For example, in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City, it's a large structure and according to the 2003 US congressional budget - because this passes through their Congress - the allotment for that cost 45 million dollars… That's no simple structure - it's complete - they have communications, and administrative facilities and so forth. And it's off limits to Philippines military personnel," he said.
Simbulan said the US is likely to seek the use of its former military and naval bases in Subic and Clark under the defense pact, which is why Philippines President Benigno Aquino III should insist that the US respect the Philippines' constitution and its laws, including its nuclear weapons-free policy.
Former Department of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Ariel Abadilla, meanwhile, said having increased US rotational presence in the Philippines is not good for the country in the long run.
"More US troops would certainly mean more possibilities of problems with our nationals, with our domestic policies...if you remember, there was the Smith case and when the bases were here, there were so many complaints about the misbehavior...It won't be good....In certain areas wherere there are disasters it would be good, but it is a question of assets and liabilities, pros and cons,'' he said.
Pacific trade pact
Simbulan and Abadilla both agreed that the Philippines should be wary of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact that potentially excludes China while putting the US right at the center of the region's economy.
They warn that doing so would unnecessarily antagonize China, amid projections that it could soon become the world's largest economy, eclipsing the US.
The Philippines and China are already at odds over their overlapping claims to parts of the West Philippine Sea.
The TPP aims to establish a free trade bloc among several countries.The pact is envisioned to connect a dozen Asia-Pacific economies by eliminating trade barriers and harmonizing regulations.
It is expected to be sealed by the end of the year by the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
''Aligning ourself with the TPP will align ourself economically with just the US… If we are to look at our national interest, we should relate with both countries. Our focus is we should not be the enemy of any country,'' Simbulan said.
''The implication of having US troops here and aligning ourselves with the TPP is we will unnecessarily antagonize a very important and significant neighbor and maybe this neighbor may soon be the number one economy in the world. So my feeling is that as this country grows, we should also try gain from it, because its a big large market."
Abadilla, for his part, said, ''I think as a country, we should always have our national interest in mind. If our national interest says we should say no, then we should learn how to bite the bullet." – with ANC.